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  • Jason Appel

More Questions Than Answers

Reflecting on another year with playlists

As the 2016-2017 school year comes to a close, I’m thinking a lot about what worked well this year. Actually that’s not true. I’m thinking obsessively about what I want to do differently next year. Feedback I’ve received from surveying my students throughout the year and from educators from around Rhode Island who have visited my classroom leaves me with more questions than answers. Also, I finally have a partner for next year! My colleague Sam Schachter and I are going to build playlists for Algebra 1 together. Check out his blog to get his perspective on our endeavor. Now that I won’t be doing this alone any more, I feel an even greater responsibility to address these concerns. I’m also super excited to have someone to plan with who will provide a fresh perspective.

For my FuseRI project (see my first blog post) I identified a few problems of practice, and then attempted to address them one at a time throughout the 2015-2016 school year. I think it is time to try that again. Below are some issues I’ve identified with a few initial thoughts. If you have suggestions as you read this, please share them here.


Purposeful Grouping

The problem: I encourage my students to work where they want and with who they want. They love this. Most of my students sat in the same area, with the same people all year. That was a mistake. Some groups worked together brilliantly, engaging in productive “math fights” and collaborating effectively. However, other groups did not. Students had very few opportunities to hear from each other outside of their small groups. Groups consisting of struggling learners became self-fulfilling prophecies, feeding off of each other’s frustrations.

Possible solution: I want to try implementing more purposeful grouping. One idea is to start each unit with self-selected groups. After a few days, when the high flyers are moving ahead, and others are “falling behind”, force them into groups based on where they are. For example, group A are students who are “behind”, group B are “on track”, and group C are “ahead” of schedule (if you’re wondering why I’m using quotes, read my last blog post). This way I can support them more effectively. Also, if they are grouped based on where they are in their work, they can more easily support each other and collaborate. Another idea is to occasionally force mixed level groups to enable the struggling learners to work with the high flyers.

Whole Class Discussion

The problem: Last year I read a blog post written by Alice Keeler challenging teachers to never talk to the entire class...ever. I love the idea of making every interaction with students more personal. However, I think I took it too far. If most of the class is having trouble with the same concept, taking five minutes to go over it as a class isn’t a bad thing.

Possible solution: to the entire class once in awhile for a short period of time! Maybe set a timer on myself so I don’t ramble for too long?

Taking Notes

The problem: I wanted to allow my students to take notes in the way that works best for them. I had a few students who took notes almost exclusively electronically, and were able to do it effectively, like this. Many took notes more traditionally in a notebook, and that worked great for them. Unfortunately too many of my students didn’t take effective notes. Whether it be watching videos or solving problems in my playlists, they tried to work without writing anything down. When I provided printed copies of playlist work, those printed copies often wound up in the circular file or backpack void, never to be seen again.

Possible solution: My new playlist partner Sam and I were discussing this recently while planning for next year. He came up with an idea. Require students to use a 3-ring binder. Provide printed copies of all playlist work, already 3-hole punched. If a student doesn’t like this method, they can opt out, but only after effectively demonstrating an alternative.


Pacing Next Level

The problem: Allowing my students to work at their own pace is at the core of everything I’m trying to do in my classroom. However, there are limits to how much time I can allow them to take to get there. They must complete their playlists before taking an assessment. Everyone is taking assessments at the same time. My school isn’t ready to change that. So what do I do with the student who needs a bit more time to master a concept? The student who, for whatever reason, just isn’t keeping up? I want to allow them to work at their own pace, but I need them to be ready on test day.

Possible solution: Currently I try to check in with each student, especially those who are “falling behind” just about every day. Maybe the purposeful grouping will help to address this problem? Otherwise I’m really not sure what to do. Help!

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